A {Digital} Stitch in Time

FALL 2012: V.08 N.02: FOUND – SAMPLED – STOLEN – STRATEGIES OF APPROPRIATION IN NEW MEDIA

 
Alexia Mellor
Independent artist.

INTRODUCTION

From laser cutting, to computer-controlled embroidery machines and Arduino-enabled clothing, artists employ technology and craft practices to new and exciting ends, challenging our imaginations and preconceptions of craft. However, there is another trend within visual art that deserves attention: artists using needlecraft techniques to explore digital technology, not as a tool, but as the subject matter of their practice. No longer reserved for our grandmothers, needlecraft has become a subversive tool of counter-culture. Whether revealing the underlying relationship between computer coding and embroidery patterns, or documenting the digital landscape through portraits of cotton stitches, artists encourage an intimate participation with the digital through the laborious, and social process of needlecraft, questioning the meaning of “social networks” and participatory production while exploring collective meaning and ownership in the digital age.

Merriam-Webster defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” [1] With the proliferation of digital culture, the term has been adapted to include images or videos spread from one Internet user to another. These memes, though fleeting, offer a window into our growing online culture and serve as a reflection of our interests and values. My own interest in the relationship between digital and craft cultures has led to ongoing practice-led research translating popular social media memes into cross-stitched tapestries. Memes are, in effect, cultural DNA: spreading and mutating while carrying the essential character of our society. As with genes, there is a natural selection that occurs with memes. The most popular survive and are canonized in contemporary Internet folklore. Yes, I am guilty of testing my limits on how long I can listen to the annoying Nyan Cat theme song, and I have shared frustration at being “Rickrolled.” I have LOL’d and ROFL’d at the Chloe Sevigny parodies on YouTube, and “Rainbow Stalin” always brings a smile. Apparently, I am not alone.

I began creating meme samplers while caring for my dying grandfather. It was a way of reconciling the dominant presence of the Internet in my daily life with wanting to do something with my hands. I draw a direct relationship between the cross-stitch and the pixel, juxtaposing the time and labor required for the embroidery with the rapid spread of the meme. Stitching the meme becomes an act of preservation. It also became a way to drastically slow down time, to meditate through repetition, and to instigate conversation with my grandfather. Although he thought I was “off my rocker” when he saw me stitching a cat with a Pop Tart body flying through the sky with a rainbow in its wake, it was because I was sitting next to him, embroidering, that he shared his own experience of sewing a Red Cross flag during the War. Given needlecraft’s time-intensive process, I have to wonder, is the meme even relevant by the time I have completed the sampler? In many respects, that does not matter. What does matter is that the textile becomes the physical record of the moments shared.

Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, 2012, Alexia Mellor, textile,  Alexia Mellor.

Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, 2012, Alexia Mellor, textile, © Alexia Mellor (used with permission).

WHY NEEDLECRAFT AND THE DIGITAL?

Needlecraft and the digital are not as disparate as they first appear. The abundance of craft and technology terms permeating our vernacular, with phrases such as “weaving a tale” and “to google” as commonplace examples, indicates that both have become permanent fixtures in our culture. Operationally and conceptually, the computer and loom are intensely woven together. The loom, with its binary code of warps and wefts, is a distant cousin of the computer. Ada Lovelace is credited with devising the working system of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the forerunner of the modern computer. By sampling ideas from the Jacquard loom, mainly the use of punch cards to translate complicated patterns with the ability to store and process information with speed and precision, [2] Lovelace instigated a correlation between craft and the digital that continues today.

STITCHING A MEME AESTHETIC

Interested in this inherent link between weaving and the Web, I noticed a resounding theme amongst artists’ projects: a desire to contrast the labor-intensive process of needlecraft with the warp speed of the Internet. The repetitive process of stitching provides opportunity for reflection. Whereas some artists utilize the social potential of needlecraft to engage, others use needlecraft as a means of retreating from the omnipresence of technology in our lives in order to better understand the implications of a progressively digitized world.

Pixilated images easily lend themselves to the square structure of cross-stitching. Edurne Herrán stitches QR codes, error notifications, and icons from our 8-bit days, including the ubiquitous hourglass and the dreaded Error 404.

8 bit Cross-Stitch (11 Hours, 27 Minutes), 2011, Edurne Herrán,  textile  Edurne Herrán.

8 bit Cross-Stitch (11 Hours, 27 Minutes), 2011, Edurne Herrán, textile © Edurne Herrán (used with permission).

Colleen Toutant, on the other hand, uses needlepoint to recreate the more contemporary aesthetics of social media websites as seen on smartphone screens. Poignantly, Toutant bridges the intensely private with the public nature of the Internet by carefully hand-stitching the Chicago Tribune webpage featuring her father’s obituary.

Dad’s Obituary, 2011, Colleen Toutant, silk on linen,  Colleen Toutant.

Dad’s Obituary, 2011, Colleen Toutant, silk on linen, © Colleen Toutant (used with permission).

Although these artists’ practices raise different aspects of our relationship to the digital, both point to a desire to counter the speed of contemporary life while exploring the personal and collective relationships to digital technology.

Artists Carrie Sieh and Charlene Lam reflect on the rate at which technology becomes outdated or obsolete. Sieh embroiders onto antiquated floppy discs, highlighting the changing nature of technology by transforming them into craft artifacts. [3] In Lam’s project, “my dumb phone speaks to me,” she stitches the “unexpected poetry” that her “non-smart” phone creates when providing auto-correct options for text messages. SarahGotowka creates woven “sext” messages and 3-D emoticons.

FHow Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?, 2012, Sarah Gotowka, gimp,  Sarah Gotowka.

How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?, 2012, Sarah Gotowka, gimp, © Sarah Gotowka (used with permission).

Both Lam’s and Gotowka’s projects not only reference the obsolescence of certain technologies, but stress a change in the way we communicate as a result of our interactions with digital technologies. Do emoticons and text speak represent the future of language development? Only time will tell.

Erin M. Riley deals with issues of revealing private communications on the Internet. Using traditional weaving methods and hand-dyed wool, Riley translates images sourced from Facebook, Google and other media sites that point to representations of young women’s developing sexuality. Through her process she investigates the potential harassment and exploitation of making such images so public.

2010 Facebook Drama, 2010, Erin M. Riley,  textile,  Erin M. Riley.

2010 Facebook Drama, 2010, Erin M. Riley, textile, © Erin M. Riley (used with permission).

Carly Whitaker’s “name, comment, #tag piece” also examines how we communicate, specifically how social media encourages direct participation. Asking participants to scan a QR code linking to the project’s website, she instructs visitors to input their names, comments and hash tags which are projected in LED’s onto the artist’s dress. [4] In offering direct participation and subsequently publishing the comments onto the represented body, one wonders if the anonymous aspect of the interface could lead to the very harassment and exploitation that Riley addresses in her work.

SAMPLERS

In their earliest form, samplers or “exampler for a woman to work by; exemple,” [5] served as a source of patterns and trials of stitches borrowed from other sources as a reference point. Many early samplers show images and designs copied from pattern books that were themselves copies of foreign publications, or scenes influenced by trading with the East. [6] In effect, the sampler not only became a personal “how-to” notebook of ideas and techniques, it also presciently forecasted our sampling culture.

Similar to early memes like “BadgerBadgerBadger,” [7] samplers also used repetition and compositing as key techniques. Combined with personal flourishes and modified motifs, the samplers could be likened to the individual maker’s personal handwriting. The touching nineteenth-century Elizabeth Parker sampler serves as a stitched diary entry of a woman struggling with her human frailties. [8] Strikingly contemporary, this sampler could easily be taken as a blog posting, Live Journal entry, or perhaps a Facebook status.

At first glance, Kate Westerholt’s cross-stitched pieces resemble these traditional samplers, but upon closer inspection we see a hysterically funny twist with biting commentary. Westerholt replaces the ubiquitous “Home Sweet Home” with film quotes, song lyrics and slang sampled from popular culture and juxtaposed with traditional motifs. [9] The result is a humorous cultural mash-up, leading us to wonder what of our contemporary culture will be passed down and sampled. Adam Jon Moore produces large-scale tapestries of images of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in order to process emotions he could not comprehend as an 8-year old.

Challenger 10×18, 2012, Adam Jon Moore, textile,  Adam Jon Moore.

Challenger 10×18, 2012, Adam Jon Moore, textile, © Adam Jon Moore (used with permission).

Compare these methods of sampler making with Iain Clark’s 2007 “PHP Embroidery” developed in response to Ele Carpenter’s Open Source Embroidery project and we see an entirely different way of subverting traditional samplers. [10] Clark has created a simple loop in PHP that creates an ever-evolving digital quilt. The code structure is available to anyone wanting to alter or contribute to the “embroidery,” much like participating in a digital version of the collaborative sewing bee. All three artists offer varying perspectives regarding the role of samplers in understanding and transmitting personal and cultural lore. They also raise questions over ownership and authorship unique to our digital age.

SAMPLER AS OPEN SOURCE

Open Source denotes software available in source code form allowing users to alter and modify the code with the intention of making alterations available for public consumption. More commonly, it is a philosophy whereby end users are able and encouraged to modify said products with the goal of shared improvement. [11] In light of the sampler’s original intention of borrowing from one source to modify a pattern and redistribute it to fellow embroiderers, it could be argued that embroidery has always been an “open source” model, strengthened by the fact that samplers were made within a social group where skills were taught and exchanged. Contemporary crafters fuel the Open Source movement by sharing techniques and patterns for processes such as embroidery samplers and meme construction, creating platforms that allow the individual to disrupt the cultural code with the aim of creating their own code.

Merging social engagement practices with new media aesthetics, artist and curator Ele Carpenter explores the ethical and conceptual aspects of Open Source with her Open Source Embroidery project, asking participants to stitch “HTML,” “meme,” or other lexicon borrowed from Internet culture.

Colourful Sayings Good as Gold, 2009, created for Open Source Embroidery, Charlene Lam,  textile, Charlene Lam.

Colourful Sayings Good as Gold, 2009, created for Open Source Embroidery, Charlene Lam, textile, ©Charlene Lam (used with permission).

Obviously there are many online communities that never actually meet “IRL,” however in crafting circles and with Carpenter’s project specifically, emphasis is placed on the importance of individuals coming together, face to face, to work on a common goal. [12]

{DIGITAL} ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT

Morris and Ruskin’s nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, developed in reaction to the socially devastating Industrial Revolution, sought to combat the alienation and soul stripping of factory work by proposing self-realization of the laborer through craftwork. The focus on the integration of creativity and daily life was central to its Utopian vision of labor. [13] This aspect of individual contribution has been revived by the profusion of social media memes and a renewed interest in craft, leading the way toward a new, digital arts and crafts movement.

Needlecraft and the Internet could be considered “cool” media according to Marshall McLuhan, [14] requiring active participation from their respective audiences. The current {Digital} Arts and Crafts movement seeks to capitalize on the participatory nature of both media by combining them. In contrast to Morris and Ruskin, contemporary artists co-opt, rather than oppose, machines and technology as tools to bring craft and art practices together in new ways. The West has typically favored the visual over the tactile, [15] which in part explains craft’s unwarranted inferior status in relation to art. However, the phenomenon that craft historian Ezra Shales refers to as a “technophilic” movement in the crafts, combining traditional methods with digital technology as a strategy to investigate current issues, has brought needlecraft into the center stage of contemporary art discourse. [16]

Art benefits greatly from craft’s exemption from the art/life divide that Dada, Fluxus, Situationism and Relational Aesthetics have tackled. Craft’s techniques and socio-historical underpinnings allow artists to reconnect to the tactile object and the community, while at the same time confronting the complex social and digital make-up characterizing the 21st century. One could just as easily amend Manovich’s statement that, “… changes in media technologies are correlated with social change. If the logic of old media corresponded to the logic of industrial mass society, the logic of new media [craft] fits the logic of the postindustrial society, which values individuality over conformity,” (my insertion and emphasis). [17] Combine this with craft’s inclusion of marginalized groups, and general opposition to corporate culture, and we have a politically active global sub-culture with the potential to cross digital and cultural divides, and contest the boundaries of the White Cube.

{DIGITAL} GUILDS AND CRAFTIVISM

“Craftivism,” (a combination of craft and activism) conjures up the image of an angry woman wearing a homemade balaclava and army uniform, knitting an Anti-Bush sign. The image is not necessarily completely off-base, as seen with the recent focus on the Pussy Riot trial, but there is a broader dimension to craftivism. From the AIDS quilt, to yarn bombings, to Cat Mazza’s knit animation of war imagery “Knit for Defense,” artists and crafters unite craft practices with a political voice. Betsy Greer, credited with coining “craftivism,” says there is an “intrinsic connection” between craft and activism as both terms elicit strong reactions, and by combining them there is the possibility for people to use their own brand of creativity as personal activism. [18] Craftivism is akin to hacker culture, offering the opportunity to creatively reject the mainstream by quite literally taking matters into one’s hands and forming one’s own replacement. This movement demands to be taken seriously by using the Internet as a key platform for distribution.

The Internet functions as a digital guild: hosting countless resources for discussion, recruitment, and sharing. One such resource is contemporary artist Cat Mazza’s knitPro 2.0 software, developed to translate digital images into needlework patterns. The software is an open source freeware and knit pattern program available for general use on her website microRevolt.org. Using the software, Mazza has knit legwarmers bearing the Mattel Barbie “B” logo, along with other corporate logos, bringing awareness to sweatshop practices. In addition, her current project “Knit for Defense” weaves footage from WWII images into a knit animation. She says of the project, “…what’s powerful about traditional craft practices is the labor involved; whether it’s done by an individual or as a collective… Understanding why there seems to be a rise in handcraft during war, as well as a time of sweeping technology, may help us understand its social implications and cultural appeal.” [19] I propose that the rise in craftivism’s popularity is due to its DIY ethos and ability to engage individuals and groups alike in voicing concerns and shaping their communities, particularly during difficult and uncertain times. With digital guilds, online stitching circles, and the political promise of sites such as Twitter, the potential for craftivism to take hold on a large scale is enormous.

PARODY AS DIY FOLKLORE

Often entertaining or ridiculous, social media memes underline our values, our concerns, and our need for escape. Humor plays a major role in a meme’s viral capacity. We forward funny jokes via email, repeatedly watch YouTube videos of people falling, and love mash-ups of a failed beauty queen humiliating herself in the question round of a pageant. With a global network enabling swift transmission and millions of views, a meme can go from relative obscurity to a guaranteed place in Internet folklore. What is it that we luvz about the LOLs?

Alan Dundes states, “No piece of folklore continues to be transmitted unless it means something even if neither the speaker nor the audience can articulate what that meaning might be.” [20] DIY artists, including creators of memes and their spin-offs, employ parody to question and expose underlying cultural structures. Performing, wearing, or embodying the meme facilitates an understanding of its role in our folklore, forcing us to intimately examine why it is we are really laughing. Kayla Mattes uses nostalgic irony, wearing her ASCII cats knitwear collection and quilts embellished with stitched AIM chats.

ASCII Catz, 2012, Kayla Mattes,  textile,  Kayla Mattes.

ASCII Catz, 2012, Kayla Mattes, textile, © Kayla Mattes (used with permission).

Performance artist Tony Schwensen’s “Monkey Business 1” video performance sees the artist embodying the “Chimp Rapes Frog” meme, sewing and wearing costumes to simultaneously become the frog and the chimp.

Monkey Business 1, 2012, Tony Schwensen, still from video performance,  Tony Schwensen.

Monkey Business 1, 2012, Tony Schwensen, still from video performance, © Tony Schwensen (used with permission).

The performative characteristics of these works reflect our attempts to grasp and influence cultural production through a direct, physical experience. This shift from passive media consumption to active contribution suggests that whether we like it or not, we are all implicated in the state of the culture.

The Web has drastically modified our understanding of how information and knowledge are produced and shared. It has redefined relationships and social networks. Digital technology is our cultural bellwether, illustrating trends and suggesting new directions, while simultaneously providing a platform for innovation. From “high brow” academic TED conference videos to “low brow” pranks on YouTube, memes spread across continents and social groups, building a “macro” culture. Crafting’s lineage spans human civilization, recording personal and cultural histories through artifacts. In a time in which familiar cultural, political, and economic systems are crashing around us, there is a call to the average person to take an active part in determining a new future. Could we, as David Gauntlett suggests, combine models of Web 2.0 and crafting where making, sharing and collaboration are central, and create a ‘making and doing’ culture rather than a ‘sit back and be told’ culture? [21] Could we subvert the Debordian Spectacle? Like Madame Defarge in Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities documenting the horrors of the Reign of Terror by recording the names of victims at the guillotine in her knitting, crafting artists today record our own {digital} stitch in time. It is up to each one of us to decide if we like what we see in this {digital} cultural mirror.


REFERENCES

1. Merriam Webster Dictionary Official Website, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meme (Accessed March 27, 2011).
2. Sadie Plant, “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics,” in Clicking in: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, ed. Lynn Hershman Leeson, (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996), 123-135.
3. Carrie Sieh Official Website, http://carriesieh.net/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
4. Carly Whitaker Official Website, http://carlywhitaker.blogspot.co.uk/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
5. Victoria and Albert Official Website, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-samplers-16th-century/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
6.  Helen Brooks, “Embroidery: Sources of design, past and present,” The Vocational Aspect of Education, 7:14 (1955), 20-31.
7. Know Your Meme Official Website, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/badger-badger-badger (accessed 26 August 2012).
8. Victoria and Albert Museum Official Website, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/sampler/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
9. Jo Waterhouse, Indie Craft, (London: Laurence King, 2010), 120.
10. Iain Clark Official Website, http://www.iainclark.co.uk/embroidery/index.php (accessed 26 August 2012).
11. Open Source Initiative Official Website, http://opensource.org/docs/osd (accessed 26 August 2012).
12. Open Source Embroidery Official Website, http://www.open-source-embroidery.org.uk/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
13. Maria Elena Buszek, “The Ordinary Made Extra/Ordinary,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
14. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994).
15. Jo Dahn, “Elastic/Expanding: Contemporary Conceptual Ceramics,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) 167.
16.Otto von Busch, “Exploring net political craft: From collective to connective,” Craft Research 1 (2010), 113-124.
17. Lev Manovitch, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001), 41.
18. Betsy Greer, “Craftivist History,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek,) Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 178-180.
19. Creative Capital Official Website, http://blog.creative-capital.org/2012/07/in-focus-cat-mazzas-knit-for-defense/ (accessed 26 August 2012).
20. Alan Dundes as quoted in Russell Frank, “The Forward as Folklore,” in Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World, ed. Trevor J. Blank, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2009), 99.
21. David Guantlett. Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 8.


Bio

Alexia Mellor is an interdisciplinary artist employing humor and performative strategies to investigate contemporary notions of identity and place.

www.alexiamellor.com